The first city of the Realms I felt I just had to revisit, and therefore see more of than just some dangerous dark alleys and seedy rooms nigh the reek of dockside, was the great port of Waterdeep.
The largest, busiest, most varied and tolerant crossroads city of the Sword Coast, and therefore large enough for Mirt to hide in for longer than his usual brief visits and “get out of town while he still has a neck to preserve” hasty exits. And large enough to be the destination for constant streams of merchants, individuals looking to get hired to do just about anything, mercenaries, craftworkers, and to support ne’er do wells. And a haughty and “above it all” feuding nobility with their grand mansions and their servants.
So this largest city would have to be the largest port among many ports for a reason. And it struck me right away that a good reason would be that it had the best natural harbor of any place along the Sword Coast. And being as the books I read all talked about “deepwater harbors” being ideal for ocean-going ships of large size, it might be called Deepwater.
Except for one thing: “Deepwater” sounded more like a place in Maine that a narrow-gauge New England railroad might serve (I was avidly “armchair” model railroading at the time, and still do), rather than somewhere in a medieval fantasy setting. So Deepwater became . . . Waterdeep.
The City of Splendors. Easy to spot from sea thanks to a huge mountain, Mount Waterdeep, that also sheltered the city from the worst howling winter storms. A raised and readily defensible plateau crammed with buildings. With a squalid Dock Ward at one end, curled around the harbor, a castle, a large cemetery called the City of the Dead, and two wealthy northern wards, Sea Ward and North Ward, where old and new money (the nobles and “wannabe nobles” cloaked in great wealth but lacking titles) dwelled and schemed and invested—including hiring adventurers for all sorts of things.
So I could tell many and varied “Mirt and Durnan have another adventure” stories, not accommodate D&D® adventures, because D&D® didn’t exist yet.
Of course, when the game came along, Waterdeep was an ideal setting for the first players in the Realms, my best friends, to have their characters—the Company of Crazed Venturers—adventure in.
As I frantically detailed the place all around them, so they could have day jobs and bills, places to shop, enemies and contacts to develop, and something they could go and see as the “current clack” (already Waterdhavian slang, long before D&D® existed, along with “anything you want to buy, you can find in this city” and “go chase the Cinammon Dragon” [or “go seek the C-D”], that last phrase meaning either “Get lost! Beat it! Scram!” or “You’ll be wasting your time on a wild goose chase, but don’t let me stop you; follow your own weird!”) or gossip of the day unfolded—and players being roleplayers, their characters always want to go and see the most interesting people, places, and things making the news. Or as my father used to put it: “Some people just have to go and find trouble—or wander around, poking and prying, until it finds them.”
Waterdeep was already mapped down to the last building well before there was a D&D® game. The only affordable model soldiers available to me then were little boxes of unpainted Airfix 1:87-scale plastic figurines (which is why the city map was drawn on so many 17” x 35” sheets, in a scale that made an “average” rectangular-footprint “city shop with three or four floors of offices and living quarters above it” be large enough that its outline could just accommodate the plastic base of one of those Airfix figurines), and I could move those figurines around to represent heroes, or bad guys, or a Watch patrol. So I could properly plot race-and-chase scenes, the Watch closing in on someone or trying to surround them, sightlines for someone noticing something in a story, and so on.
My maps had every last tree (in a city that didn’t have many of them) drawn on it, and all the public water-pumps, too, but what was located in many of the buildings was just blank. Awaiting the needs of a story.
When D&D® play started in Waterdeep, it was like chucking a large rock into a small pond—the ripples went everywhere, hard and fast. Inns for the PCs to stay at were needed, and taverns for them to drink at, shops where they could buy this, that, and the other specific ware, stables where horses could be rented or bought and sold, hiring fairs for mercenaries, guild headquarters to complain at, Watchposts for the local lawkeepers to lock people up in, and so on and on and on. I detailed like a madman, keeping my attention not primarily on real estate, but on the people who lived and worked in those establishments. What D&D® calls “Non-Player Characters” and what every fiction writer calls “the essential to any good and colorful tale: vivid characters, to make you care about the plot.” As I’ve said many a time before, the Realms isn’t really real estate—it’s people. They may be dragons or elves or menacing undead whispering from well beyond their graves, but they’re people. Their lives, aims, wants, prejudices, and schemes are the lifeblood of the Realms.
I’m still detailing Waterdeep, and it’s a task that will stand unfinished when I die. As generations in published game time pass, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original shopkeepers and guildmasters and noble matriarchs and patriarchs are born and stride onto the stage.
The city has come alive, and it’s a measure of how vivid that life has become that other writers (like Elaine Cunningham, in her novel Elfshadow and its sequels, and in the City of Splendors novel we wrote together) can bring Waterdeep alive so perfectly that I swear she must have been reading my mind as she wrote, to get how people and buildings look, and how Waterdhavians speak, and dozens of passing details just perfect—by which I mean, of course, how I envisage them in my mind’s eye, but haven’t always set down on paper.
And game designers other than myself (like Steven Schend and Eric Boyd, penning various versions of Waterdeep D&D® sourcebooks, and like Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, creating the superb Lords of Waterdeep boardgame that has become a family favorite) can bring to life a Waterdeep that I recognize so well.
At one level it’s all just squiggles of ink on paper that our brains interpret to derive meanings, folks, but when done right, it can seem so real.
Oh, yes, Waterdeep is real.
Image borrowed from “http://forgottenrealms.wikia.com/wiki/Waterdeep” ©Wizards of the Coast